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Intelligent Design


Expelled’s main theme is that intelligent design is under systematic attack by “Big Science” – the scientific establishment – which refuses to recognize its scientific validity because of a previous commitment to atheism and materialism. In truth, the arguments of intelligent design have been examined by the scientific community and found to be lacking in both utility and accuracy. If mainstream science declines to accept intelligent design, it is the fault of the intelligent design advocates, who have not performed the research and theory-building demanded of everyone in the scientific enterprise.

The Claim

“Intelligent design was being suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion” (Ben Stein, Expelled).

The Facts

Intelligent design has not produced any research to suppress. When prominent ID proponent Michael Behe was asked about his research, and why “you don’t do those tests?” he responded, “I myself would prefer to spend time in what I would consider to be more fruitful endeavors.” If even proponents of ID do not think it is a fruitful enterprise, why should the scientific community take any interest in it?

As shown elsewhere on this site, the supposed cases of suppression offered in Expelled are dishonest attempts to make mountains out of molehills and to create martyrs where martyrdom does not exist.

Intelligent design is scientifically unproductive, and this perhaps explains why scientists like Guillermo Gonzalez and Michael Behe publish far fewer papers after they become attracted to intelligent design. Ultimately, intelligent design’s lack of success in science departments is the fault of the flawed and unscientific nature of intelligent design itself, not the result of bias in the scientific community.

The issue is not the suppression of ID, but the lack of warrant for its scientific claims. And ultimately, ID has an uphill struggle to demonstrate that it is, indeed, science. The fundamental problem with intelligent design as science is that intelligent design claims cannot be tested. Scientific testing requires that there be some set of phenomena which are incompatible with your idea. No observation could possibly be incompatible with a claim that an “intelligent agent” (whom everyone recognizes as God) acted to, say, introduce information into a system. Untestable claims are not scientific claims. Regardless of their attractiveness as religious ideas (although many people of faith strongly reject intelligent design) intelligent design has not passed muster as science.

The Claim

Referring to evolution, scientists “say the debate has been settled, that the issues are settled.” (Bruce Chapman, Expelled)

The Facts

Scientists have been researching evolution for 150 years, and it continues to be well supported by new research. Modern evidence for evolution derives from fossils, from genetics, from the development of organisms, and from many other fields unimaginable to Darwin or even to early 20th-century evolutionary biologists.

The nature of the scientific enterprise is for scientists to debate different explanations vigorously until research changes people’s minds, and a consensus gradually emerges. But even a consensus view is capable of being modified and in rare instances, even replaced. That living things descended with modification from common ancestors – the big idea of evolution – has been part of the scientific consensus now for over 100 years. It is conceivable, of course, that any well-founded theory could be overturned (as evolution itself overturned earlier ideas), but the more confirmatory evidence accumulates, the less likely this is to happen. Expelled expresses the opinion that the universal support of evolution in the scientific community is the product of some sort of bias or ideological inflexibility. It is, on the contrary, the result of decades of hard scientific work, building theory and conducting research. Similarly, the failure of intelligent design can readily be laid at the feet of its advocates, whose main activity appears to be to carp about the success of evolution.

The Claim

“Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor is already taking a design approach to his study of the human brain. […] Jonathan Wells is also making progress using Intelligent Design theory in his research on cancer.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)

The Facts

These claims to be applying “design” in science rest on a weak foundation, since the term “design” is used in inconsistent and in confusing ways throughout the movie. The Discovery Institute’s Paul Nelson describes “design theory” as “the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as a result of intelligence,” though that definition presupposes that we know when something is or isn’t the result of intelligence. Walter Bradley, however, seems to think that the question central to design is how to distinguish whether life and other phenomena “arise by some type of intelligent guidance or design,” while Ben Stein and several of his interviewees seem to think that ID is about determining whether God intervenes directly in the world around us.

Egnor’s and Wells’s examples of “design” research, though, fit none of these three disparate definitions. Instead, Wells and Egnor use a tortured and discredited analogy in which cellular and anatomical structures composed of many interacting parts are compared to a machine which a human made from many interacting parts. Because a machine requires an intelligent human to assemble these parts to make a functioning product, Egnor and Wells assume that their structures require an intelligent agent to plan them and put them together. “Design” in this sense refers to a “purposeful assemblage of parts,” implying both function and origin.

But scientists commonly speak of the “design” of structures in an informal sense of “parts working together to produce a function,” as the “design” of the elongated wrist bones of a deer, which produces a leg capable of fast running. The study of structure and function is common in medical and other biological research; there is much utility in finding out how something works. This work can be done – and ordinarily is done – without making any assumptions of “design” in the intelligent design sense: that there needs to be a guiding hand purposefully assembling those parts.

Wells claims that “the underlying cause of cancer is ‘chromosomal instability,’ or damage to extra-genic structures – not mutations to individual genes.” As biomedical researcher Ian Musgrave points out, though, “this knowledge seems to have eluded most researchers in the field (see this review and this comprehensive review [link removed; broken] as typical examples).” Musgrave then cites numerous examples of successful cancer medicines which specifically target “mutations to individual genes,” concluding, “I hardly need to make the point that researchers were guided by experimental and observational evidence (such as experimental evidence of mutations, generation of tumours by transferring mutant genes, mouse transgenic models etc. etc.) rather than blind allegiance to Darwinist dogma.”

A Centriole
Based on his incorrect beliefs about the basic biology of cancer, Wells speculates that chromosomal instability must result from problems in the functioning of a cellular organelle called the centriole. He proposed, supposedly on the basis of “intelligent design,” that centrioles operate like turbines, which spin and produce something called the “polar ejection force,” which drives chromosomes apart when a cell divides. Wells made certain predictions on that basis, as a scientist should do, and as it happens, the predictions of this model turn out to be wrong. The polar ejection force does not depend upon the centriole, since the force still exists when centrioles are absent, or when they are not configured the way Wells describes. Even before Wells published his speculation, a research group had submitted a paper which went beyond speculation, actually showing that a molecule called a chromokinesin generates the polar ejection force.

How Wells responded to this refutation of his hypothesis concerning the link between centriole structure and cancer is revealing. Even though refutations of his hypothesis have been known to Wells for over a year, he continues to repeat the disproven claim in Expelled and in publications. Intelligent design advocates are anxious to promote Wells’s work as an example of how intelligent design can function as real science. Unfortunately, Wells’s work fails on three accounts as an example of this desire. First, the hypothesis is wrong: it reflects a misunderstanding of how cancer works and it makes incorrect predictions about how cells operate. Second, it is unclear what role (if any) “design” plays in the claims, since an investigator might have come to the same erroneous conclusions without the overlay of a design inference. Third, by not incorporating criticisms and corrections into his model or, if necessary, abandoning his model and moving on to another research area, Wells illustrates that intelligent design is not as interested in actual scientific discovery as it is in clinging for propaganda purposes to a scientific-sounding example of “intelligent design in action”.

Egnor also proceeds from a strained analogy between a machine and a naturally occurring object, in this case the brain and a device to reduce vibrations, a “pulsation absorber”. He believes that looking at engineering solutions to structural problems (in his field, protecting the brain against too-strong flows of blood from the arteries) provides unique insight. Perhaps, but it remains unclear why a link between an engineered solution to a mechanical problem and a structural solution to a biological condition is evidence of “design.” Recognizing similarities between a machine and a biological structure does not prove that both structures are designed, only that there is a successful solution to a shared problem; there may be multiple solutions to a problem, from either an engineering or a biological perspective.

While it is not clear how the assumption of design advances the claims by Wells or Egnor, evolution – common ancestry – is of considerable assistance when researchers are investigating biological structure and function. Comparing the same structure across several related species, scientists can discover similarities and differences that help organisms deal with different environmental challenges. With that knowledge, pharmaceutical researchers can develop more effective drugs to block infectious diseases, and can trace the lineage of medicinal plants, identifying relatives which may contain life-saving compounds. Agricultural scientists can see which traits help wild species in difficult environments and genetically engineer the traits into crops, allowing them to thrive in harsh environments. Other researchers use knowledge of the traits shared within a family of insects to refine pesticides and target only harmful families, leaving others unharmed. The evolutionary perspective has been much more fruitful than the intelligent design alternative that suggests an intelligent agent produced complex biological structures for reasons unknown and by means unknown (see Nesse, R, and GC Williams, Why We Get Sick, 1994, Times Books).

The Claim

Intelligent Design deserves a place in academia: “What about academic freedom? I mean, can’t we just talk about this?” – Ben Stein, Expelled

The Facts

Actually, intelligent design is talked about in academia. Teaching about intelligent design in higher education institutions is not forbidden, or censured, and in fact, new courses are added every year. Indeed, the intelligent design-promoting web site proudly lists “100+ universities and colleges” that officially include “intelligent design in their lesson plans”. These courses generally examine intelligent design objectively and in an appropriate context, and their instructors do so openly. So intelligent design has, in fact, entered academia, although not quite in the fashion its advocates might prefer. What they seek, of course, is for intelligent design to be accepted as a valid scientific alternative to evolution. They have failed to make a convincing case for it, yet they seem to believe that they have an entitlement to a place in academia.

On the contrary, new ideas are not automatically installed in universities and classrooms: they must earn their place. The intelligent design movement diligently promotes the idea that intelligent design belongs in science classes, even while acknowledging that progress in the laboratory is lagging. In 1998, Discovery Institute personnel drafted a strategy document, commonly called the Wedge Document. The authors laid out a multi-phase plan, beginning with research, building up to a wholesale cultural renewal, including inclusion of intelligent design into public school classrooms. The promises of this document, compared to the actual accomplishments of the movement, are telling

The cover of the Wedge document
The Wedge Document proposed that by 2003 they would have “Thirty published books on design and its cultural implications (sex, gender issues, medicine, law, and religion)” and “One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by our fellows.” They are nowhere near that benchmark even five years past their deadline, especially in the critically important “academic and technical articles” category. And yet, they described this first phase, “Research, Writing and Publication” as “the essential component of everything that comes afterward. Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.” They lack solid scholarship, research, and argument; yet the project is continuing.

The second, indoctrination, phase, has been far more successful. This phase was to include:

…production of a … documentary on intelligent design and its implications…. Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidences that support the faith, as well as to “popularize” our ideas in the broader culture.

Expelled is clearly a part of that agenda, and the fact that they have released this film before completing, or even making a serious effort at “the essential component of everything that comes afterward” is a sign where their priorities lie.

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